Sitting on the balcony at the Izmir Palace Hotel in Turkey, gazing at the silvery vista, the sky is beginning to lift after a storm. Blackbirds, seagulls, and pigeons swoop down and bicker over a crust of bread. Peaceful and quiet, fishermen cast out their lines. The occasional passerby strolls down the path, walking a dog. I feel happy to have escaped the news. But at the same time, I think of the recent brutal murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and wonder if there are any developments in the case. The nature of the murder is a reminder of the courage needed to speak and write freely, especially under an authoritarian regime. Unfortunately, murders of journalists and writers have become commonplace under Bashar al-Assad of Syria and Vladimir Putin of Russia. They are also reminiscent of the murders of writers and intellectuals under Joseph Stalin. I think of the poet Osip Mandelstam, who was sent to the gulag in Siberia for writing a sardonic poem about Stalin’s “ten thick worms for fingers.” His wife, Nadezhda, preserved much of his work by memorizing his poems—even writing them on paper was too dangerous.
Two novelists who write extensively about surveillance, interrogation, and the power of the authoritarian state are the prominent Egyptian novelist Sonallah Ibrahim and the famous Czech writer Milan Kundera. In Ibrahim’s novel The Committee, the narrator is accused of being disloyal to the state and appears before an interrogation committee to clear his name. In his briefcase, he brings “testimonials” that will vouch for his honesty; however, the committee forces him to strip naked and are not interested in denials or testimonials. The goal is humiliation and intimidation, not justice, or any kind of rendering of the truth. The evidence he carries in his briefcase is useless because the verdict is preordained: he is “an enemy of the state.”
In The Committee, the state has a file on the narrator but its contents are mysterious—and the charges against him are also a riddle. He is followed home by a committee member who monitors his every movement and even watches him defecate. A commentary on the atmosphere during the Nasser era in Egypt, it is suggested that everything in the flat is being recorded. Seeing the video of Jamal Khashoggi entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and of two henchman joking after the killing, one realizes how sophisticated today’s surveillance methods have become since the 1960s and 1970s. And if we consider the fact that the Turkish government has an audio recording of Khashoggi’s execution within the Saudi Consulate—which President Trump famously refuses to listen to—one might also reflect upon the pernicious nature of paranoia of autocratic governments.
Milan Kundera, like Sonallah Ibrahim, also explores paranoia and surveillance. In his novella Lost Letters from his collection The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, even the most innocent and personal of documents—love letters—threaten to the state. The heroine in Lost Letters, a waitress named Tamina, is desperate to reclaim love letters from her late husband, which she left in her mother-in-law’s flat in Bohemia. Since he was an opposition figure, the love letters are of particular interest to the secret police. Tamina’s brother attempts to reclaim the letters from the flat in Bohemia, but someone has already rifled through the notebooks and papers. Nothing is private in the authoritarian state, even love letters in a forgotten desk.
For Jamal Khashoggi, the most innocuous and benign of documents—the state’s certification that one can marry a national from another country—turned out to be a trap. It is now early March—three months since I was looking off the balcony of the Izmir Palace Hotel at the bay. I wondered what would happen in the case of Jamal Khashoggi. A few weeks ago, the U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary killings reported that the “brutal and premeditated killing was planned and perpetuated by officials of the state of Saudi Arabia.” The view out my window in Cairo is not the Izmir Bay, but a pink palace, a villa, home of a music institute—the occasional rare melody from a talented saxophonist floats up to the fourth floor. Too often it is discord: the repetition of the same note on a piano, the people below quarreling over a parking place, or the blaring of car horns. Pen International and Reporters Without Borders campaign tirelessly for writers and reporters who have been imprisoned or whose voices have been muffled by the state. Whatever the price—and the price is often times, dear: exile, alienation, penury, and even death—writers, intellectuals, and journalists are not destined to be slaves or flatterers of any state, democratic or authoritarian.
A few weeks ago, in a small town in the southern Netherlands, I found myself in a cramped and musty used bookstore. If the bookshop was small, the section of books in English was miniscule, barely taking up two thin shelves. Not expecting much, I stumbled upon not one but two copies of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The price, at a euro fifty, was right, and I snagged one of the copies off the shelf.
Back when I was in college, not all that many years ago, back when I read more books in an average week than I do now in a good month, I picked up Kundera’s magnificent novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. I think I read the whole novel in one sitting, a rare occurrence. It’s a book I still think about fondly. For me, the best books are the ones that do not sacrifice form for function or function for form. That is, the writing must work well both stylistically and on the plain level of plot, and I remember The Book of Laughter and Forgetting doing both.
I meant to pick up The Unbearable Lightness of Being immediately upon finishing Laughter and Forgetting, but something else got in the way. Maybe it was Joyce, maybe it was Faulkner, maybe it was some obscure book of Twain’s that I needed to reread for my thesis. I don’t remember anymore, but Kundera somehow fell by the wayside, and I never read what today I assume is his masterpiece.
If it hadn’t been for a fortunate coincidence, I probably would have let The Unbearable Lightness of Being sit on my shelf for another few months or years while I made my way through the books in a to-be-read pile that never seems to grow any smaller.
The day after my purchase of Lightness, I happened to be reading a review of Gary Shteyngart’s new novel, Super Sad True Love Story. I am a big fan of Shteyngart, and am just as excited to delve into his new dystopian world as I was to devour his painfully funny novel Absurdistan. In the course of reading the review, I was surprised to find that The Unbearable Lightness of Being plays a semi-significant role in Shteyngart’s new work. Apparently one of the protagonists of Love Story, a bibliophile in an age of hyperactive technojunkies, in which books are all but obsolete, dreams of reading passages of Lightness to his girlfriend in bed.
After reading the review, I did a little Googling and discovered that Lightness is indeed considered one of those romantic books that lovers have been reading to each other in bed for decades.
A romantic Czech novel endorsed by a character in a Shteyngart novel? The coincidence, along with the approbation, was almost too much to bear.
I decided to eschew the pile of novels currently sitting on my nightstand for the moment, and jump right in to Lightness.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being is one of those books that you don’t know you need to read until after you’ve read it.
Possibly the perfect post-modern novel (written in the early eighties, at what I think of as the zenith of the post-modern period), Lightness plays wonderfully inventive games with the reader without sacrificing an iota of plot or detail. The book is written in a close third person, with the omniscient narrator butting in every now and again to provide commentary and remind the reader that the characters you are reading about and identifying with are his creations and nothing more.
The book’s first five chapters form a chiasmus (A-B-C-B-A). The outsides of the chiasmus follow the story of Tomas, a Prague physician and philanderer who makes a point of sleeping in his own bed alone every night, while at the same time sleeping with hundreds of women.
Tomas meets Tereza, a waitress from a small Czech town whose personal story is followed in the B sections of the chiasmus. Tomas is unbearably stricken with Tereza: “It occurred to [Tomas] that Tereza was a child put in a pitch-daubed bulrush basket and sent downstream. He couldn’t very well let a basket with a child in it float down a stormy river!”
A paragraph later, Kundera’s narrator explains: “Tomas did not realize at the time that metaphors are dangerous. Metaphors are not to be trifled with. A single metaphor can give birth to love.”
The center of the novel’s chiasmus, the C-section, tracks the life of Sabina, an artist who is for a time a lover of Tomas and a rival/mentor of Tereza.
Near the end of this third section of the book, long before the novel is over, we learn that Tomas and Tereza died in a car crash. The rest of the book backtracks and details the lives of Tomas and Tereza, although now, of course, everything is different. Now we know that their every step foretells an impending doom.
The protagonist of Super Sad True Love Story, the one who wanted to read The Unbearable Lightness of Being to his girlfriend in bed, had it wrong. Lightness is anything but a love story. At the very least, it is not a love story one should desire to read in bed to their beloved.
Tomas, the book’s main character, cannot stay faithful to his lover and wife Tereza. He spends the bulk of their lives together cheating on her, so she goes to sleep at night smelling “the aroma of a[nother] woman’s sex organs.” When he finally does come around and stop sleeping with other women, it is only because they are living in a small hamlet in the countryside, and there are no eligible women available.
Tereza, for her part, becomes so disenchanted with the love she has for Tomas that she dreams continually of his abandonment and her suicide, or alternately of his ordering her execution. It becomes so bad that, even after they move to the country, even when Tomas is a beaten down and weary old man, she still suspects him of cheating on her.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being is not a love story. It is a story about survival in the face of a power so overwhelming there is nothing one can do to stop it.
Tereza survives Tomas’s overwhelming destructiveness. Tomas survives the loss of his position as a doctor and, along with it, his sense of purpose, in the face of Soviet repression and Czech indifference.
The both of them survive a lifetime of pain together, until they don’t. The two of them die, together. Their death is hidden somewhere in the middle of the book, and it doesn’t mean a thing.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a love story. It is a story about two people surviving together in the face of a power so overwhelming there is nothing they can do to stop it.
It is a story of two people who die together, needlessly and hopelessly in love.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being is full of coincidences. In fact, the novel can easily be read as a treatise on the nature of coincidence.
Tomas broods throughout the book on the nature of his relationship with Tereza:
Seven years earlier, a complex neurological case happened to have been discovered at the hospital in Tereza’s town. They called in the chief surgeon of Tomas’s hospital in Prague for consultation, but the chief surgeon of Tomas’s hospital happened to be suffering from sciatica, and because he could not move he sent Tomas to the provincial hospital in his place. The town had several hotels, but Tomas happened to be given a room in the one where Tereza was employed. He happened to have had enough free time before his train left to stop at the hotel restaurant. Tereza happened to be on duty, and happened to be serving Tomas’s table. It had taken six chance happenings to push Tomas towards Tereza.
That afternoon a few weeks ago, I too suffered six chance happenings. I happened to be in Den Bosch. I happened to wander down a small side street and notice a tiny bookshop. I happened to go in and notice a worn copy of a book I had wanted to read for a number of years. I happened to purchase it, planning to put it aside and read it some time in the future. The next day, I happened to read an article about a book by a contemporary writer I greatly admire, touting (if only through that book’s narrator) the book I had just picked up. As I read the article, I happened to have the book by my side, so I could begin to read it immediately, before life got in the way.
Six coincidences that are not really coincidences. After all, isn’t everything we do a coincidence? I choose to walk down street A over street B. I meet a woman on street A I would have missed had I walked down street B. We fall in love. We get married. We spend our life together.
Is my walking down street A and not street B a coincidence? Had I walked down street B and met a different woman and spent a similar life with her, would that have been a coincidence as well?
Life, all life, can be read as coincidence, as a series of happenings that could just as easily not have happened. But where does that leave us?
Nowhere. Looking back, like Tomas, wondering how different things would have been had he chosen street C or street Z.
By the end of the novel (not the middle of the novel, where Tomas and Teresa are killed, but the end of the novel, where they are hopelessly alive), Tomas has stopped his endless questioning. There is no more what happened to be. There is only what is.
In this manner, the experience of reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being is reflected in the text itself.
Sure, it was a coincidence that I stumbled on this book and almost immediately read it after years of benign neglect. But the coincidence isn’t what matters.
What matters isn’t what street you walked down. What really matters, ultimately, is that you married the woman you met walking down street A.
What really matters is that you read this magnificent book. And, of course, that reading the book changed your life.